REVIEW: “House at the End of the Street”

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Am I starting to sense a trend here? Have you noticed that after getting some serious critical acclaim a number of young actresses are immediately running out to do soft PG-13 horror pictures? After really finding her way onto the critics radar with “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, Elizabeth Olsen quickly followed it up with “Silent House”. After making a huge splash in 2011 and giving what may end up being an Oscar-winning performance in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, Jessica Chastain started off 2013 with “Mama”. And then there’s “House at the End of the Street”. Jennifer Lawrence first wowed critics with “Winters Bone” and then blew up the box office with “The Hunger Games”. She followed it by dipping her toes into the horror genre with a film that’s decent enough and relatively harmless, but that still feels like a quick money draw from her recent success.

Lawrence plays Elissa Cassidy, a high school student who moves to a small wooded town with her recently divorced mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue). They get a great deal on a beautiful home and they later find out why. It seems the property values have gone down following the gruesome murders of a couple in the house next door. Elissa and Sarah begin to find out more about the murders from the locals. But there is the question of what is fact and what is just gossip? They learn that the couple’s son Ryan (Max Thieriot) is living alone in the house. He’s been ostracized by many in the community and he’s the subject of so many rumors and speculations. He becomes the centerpiece of much of the film’s mystery.

Obviously Jennifer Lawrence is the real draw here and as you would expect she does a good job. But I have to say this isn’t challenging material. She does a lot of the same old stuff that you would expect from a movie like this. About the only opportunity she gets to flex her acting muscles are in the scenes with Shue. Elissa and Sarah don’t have the best relationship and the film’s better dramatic moments are when these two are hashing it out. Unfortunately we don’t get to much of it. As good as these moments are, they’re just thrown in here and there and they feel like an afterthought.

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While “House at the End of the Street” is advertised as a horror movie and it does have its moments of standard horror fare, in many ways it feels more like a thriller – not a great one, but a thriller nonetheless. Other than a couple of sudden blasts of loud music, the film doesn’t have any genuine scares. And it never really succeeds in creating the tense and creepy atmosphere it shoots for. But this isn’t a terrible movie. I actually found myself interested in the secrets and twists surrounding the murders in the house next door. The story also remains entertaining despite some obvious plot holes and unintentional silliness. I was never bored and I appreciated some of what the filmmakers were trying to do.

I think the biggest problem with “House at the End of the Road” is that it’s a really average movie. There’s not one thing that it does exceptionally. On the other hand there are very few egregious and crippling flaws. It’s not a horrible movie but it doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. That’s why it’s a decent movie to check out on DVD on a rainy day. But expect to have forgotten all about it the next day. It’s a ‘one-and-done’ film in my book but it’s a fairly entertaining one. It just has no staying power and it won’t challenge you with anything bold and new. It turns out to be more of the same and that’s a shame.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

“28 Weeks Later” – 4 STARS

As the title obviously suggests, “28 Weeks Later” is the sequel to Danny Boyle’s widely successful zombie flick “28 Days Later”. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo takes over the directing reins and goes to great lengths to capture the same frantic style and pacing that helped make the first movie so unique. Mission accomplished! “28 Weeks Later” does something few sequels are able to do. It gives us a better film than its predecessor. Make no mistake, I really liked “28 Days Later”. But for me it lost its way in the third act which ultimately hurt the film a bit. The sequel steers clear of that and the result is a terrifying action horror movie that is relentlessly brutal but thoroughly entertaining.

I’m sure you remember the premise of the first film. A radical animal rights group storms a laboratory in England and inadvertently unleash a highly contagious Rage virus. 28 days later London and the surrounding areas are abandoned with the exception of Rage-infected people running the streets. That brings us to the sequel where many things have happened in the 28 days since the outbreak. The infected are believed to have died of starvation. A U.S. led NATO force has come in, quarantined an area, and created a safe zone for resettlement. It’s here that Don (Robert Carlyle) is reunited with his daughter Tammy (Imogen Poots) and young son Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton).

“28 Weeks Later” is smart with its storytelling. The movie opens up with a brief but brilliantly horrific scene that shows Don narrowly escaping a raging group of infected. But in order to escape Don makes a highly questionable decision and I found myself quick to judge him for it. But in a very subtle way the movie asks the audience what they would do in that situation. And of course the question grows more complicated when we learn there are children involved. The film forces several of its characters to make important yet difficult choices. Jeremy Renner plays Sgt. Doyle, an Army Sniper forced to choose between his superior’s orders and his moral convictions. Idris Elba plays General Stone that has to make a choice that will either save or end hundreds of innocent lives. Harold Perrineau plays a helicopter pilot called on to make some critical decisions by his best friend Doyle. It’s a movie of tough choices.

But c’mon, this is a zombie horror movie so you know things go bad at some point. I don’t want to give anything away but the Rage virus gets loose in the safe zone in a very surprising way. Just as in the first film, the infected are brutally vicious and ravenous. They’re genuinely frightening as they relentlessly pursue their potential meals. They run at breakneck speeds, burst through windows and doors, and spew gallons of infectious blood. They are pretty grisly sights and Fresnadillo doesn’t shy away from the gore. The infected transformation scenes are gruesome and the various zombie head shots, decapitations, and torchings aren’t for the faint of heart. Yet the graphic effects feel right at home here.

“28 Weeks Later” doesn’t stop to smell the roses. The story moves at a frantic pace with tension and intensity playing bigger roles than genuine horror movie scares. But the entire concept is laid out so well that there are moments that are utterly frightening. This is helped by some deeply committed performances. Renner is really good and convincing as is Elba. I was also impressed by the performances of Muggleton and Poots as the two kids who play a major role in the story. I also have to mention Rose Byrne’s solid work as a military doctor who makes saving the kids her top priority.

I expected “28 Weeks Later” to basically be exactly like the first film and that’s not a bad thing. But I certainly didn’t expect it to be a better movie that grabbed me early and kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to it’s fantastic final shot. Fresnadillo perfectly matches the style and tone of Danny Boyle’s first film while also making this movie his own. It’s much more straightforward but equally intelligent. “28 Weeks Later” is a wild ride and as far as horror movies go this one was right up my alley.

“THE WOMAN IN BLACK” – 3.5 STARS

No, this is not ‘Harry Potter Does Horror’. Saying that may be the greatest compliment Daniel Radcliffe could receive. Fresh off of the  massive success of the  Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe begins his adult movie career with “The Woman in Black”, and old school horror film based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. The story has been adapted into a play and a TV movie before finally reaching the big screen. It’s old school in the fact that it doesn’t soak the audience with buckets of blood and guts. Instead it relies on mood and tone and in my opinion that’s much scarier than any amount of gore.

“The Woman in Black” was a good choice for Radcliffe. It’s not a role loaded with heavy dialogue or that requires a wide range. But Radcliffe is more than able to handle what’s asked of him. He plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and father who is still struggling to cope with the death of wife during the birth of their son. Arthur’s sadness is not only effecting his relationship with his now four-year old son, but also his job performance at the law firm. His boss gives him one more chance to impress the higher-ups by sending him to a remote English village to handle the final affairs of a woman who died there. As you would guess, upon arrival Arthur is greeted with all sorts of odd behavior from villagers that would rather he leave.

One of my favorite actors, Ciaran Hinds plays Sam Daily, one of the few locals that gives Arthur the time of day. Sam warns Arthur of the superstitious nature of the villagers but it’s clear Sam knows more than even he want’s to believe. Arthur arrives at the creepy mansion of the deceased lady to begin his work. He soon finds that the land is haunted by a mysterious woman in black which leads Arthur to discover the gruesome secret the villagers so desperately try to hide.

There are so many vintage horror elements in “The Woman in Black”. We get everything from ghosts to haunted houses but most important is that the majority of it works. “The Woman in Black” really succeeds with the creep factor. With the exception of a few cheap, loud ,volume burst jump scenes, the movie manufactures its terror through slick camera work, dark and dreary locations, and a genuinely spooky ambience. The story turns out to be far more grim than a simple haunted house ghost story which adds to the intensity. Once the mystery begins to unfold, the story comes together nicely and with the exception of Arthur’s rather far-fetched solution, I liked the way things came together.

“The Woman and Black” isn’t a perfect film but it’s head-and-shoulders above many of the horror pictures Hollywood churns out. There are a couple of cheap frights, a few head-scratching moments, and it does revisit the same boo devices more than once. But it also shows a film can be scary without the senseless blood and guts. It’s look and tone perfectly captured the mood for me and I found myself easily wrapped up in the story. This is a good transition for Radcliffe and a nice film in what is usually a poor movie month.